The sites visited on this Walking Tour.
- Metropoleos Square
- Syntagma Square
- National Gardens (Zappeion Building)
- The Panathenaic Stadium
- Byron’s Statue
- Hadrian’s Arch
- Olympieion (Temple of Olympian Zeus)
- Walk Back to Hotel through the Plaka
- Metropoleos Square
Metropoleos is considered the centre of the city and it is where the Cathedral Church of Athens is built. The Cathedral commenced construction in 1842 and it is said that the Church’s walls were built from marble taken from demolished churches. (One estimate says 72 churches! Another says a few churches and ‘several’ ancient temples!) It was badly damaged in a 1999 earthquake and was only reopened in 2016. Immediately beside this Cathedral of the Annuciation is a smaller church called the Little Metropolis, formerly the Church of St Eleutherios. As was common throughout the old Byzantine Empire, such Churches were often built over the ruins of ancient temples. It is built mainly from Spolia (re-purposed building stone), some from as early as Classical era buildings such as from the Ancient Agora of Athens. Both these churches are worth a slow look.
In 2013 we were staying at the Plaka Hotel and spent the early evenings having a drink at the rooftop bar. On one of those nights our quite contemplation of the horizon was disturbed by loud chanting and drum beating from somewhere in the neighourhood. I went to the edge of the roof and discovered there was a full-blown rally occurring in Metropoleos Square. There were speeches, singing, banner waving and slogan chanting. I was delighted. I decided that I had never been exposed to a fully fascist public gathering before so I decided we should go down and have a closer look. We walked down Metropoleos St and got close to the entrance of the square where leather-jacketed individuals appeared to be checking the credentials of folk privileged enough to become part of whatever group were proclaiming the future of Greece from the very centre of Athens. From the flags we could see it was a Golden Dawn rally; Golden Dawn is a far-right, neo-Nazi fascist political party that was having some success at the time suggesting that they were the answer to Greece’s current financial troubles. They had some success in local and European elections but by 2019 their electability was much diminished. My feelings at the time of this 2013 rally was one of fear and trepidation; what would happen to Greece if these characters ever came to power. We turned around and walked the other way down Metropoleos St to Monastiraki Square (see image on right) where the atmosphere was much calmer and where citizens appeared to be enjoying themselves strolling the area and dining at the restaurants…great spot!
2. Syntagma Square
Heading down Mitropoleos Street you arrive at Constitution or Syntagma Square. It is named after the Constitution that the first King of Greece was forced to grant to the people of Greece after a popular military uprising in 1843. One side of the square is the old Royal Palace, also completed in 1843 but which now houses the Greek Parliament.
In front of the Parliament there is a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that is guarded by Presidential Guards continuously throughout the year and in all weathers. The guards are changed every hour and the routine is a very curious one and a popular viewing event in Syntagma Square.
Like all Parliaments around the world, a square in front of such a key government building is always the sites of mass protests against a government’s handling of the country’s prosperity. Particularly between 2010-2012, this square was the site of many protests demanding action from the government to resolve the country’s debt-crisis and the worsening economic situation. Fortunately or unfortunately, we happened to be visiting Athens for a few days in 2011 and found ourselves on a Red Bus Tour of the City, whose route passed through the Syntagma Square area… just as the protests were getting going. There is a brief account of our day here.
3. National Gardens
Turning right from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier you can walk down to the first entrance into the National Gardens. There is 15.5 hectares of landscaped gardens to wander through and is a beautiful path towards the next site on the day’s list, the Panathenaic Stadium. Take a look at the Zappeion building on the way. It was built in 1878 and was used as part of the games that preceded the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
4. The Panathenaic Stadium
Being the oldest city in Europe means that most sites in the centre of Athens have had multiple uses over the millennia. Anywhere you dig in Central Athens will always uncover the artifacts of past usage. However the site which is next on our visit list, the Panathenaic Stadium, has been in use for religious festivals and general entertainment for at least two and a half thousand years. Unlike, for example, the Old Agora, this site has been remodelled and reused since the 6th century BCE, despite having been abandoned for 1500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Originally the early race-course was built in a ravine in the area. The river at the bottom of this ravine now runs under a main Athenian Street. The artist’s impression on the left below gives an idea as to what this area looked like around 1835.
The ancient Greece Olympic tradition was reborn on the original site of the Panathenaic Games in Athens in 1896. The stadium held the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics on the anniversary of Greek independence.
5. Byron’s Statue
The next stop on our walk is a statue of the famous English Romantic poet, Lord George Byron (1888-1824). You can either cross the road and re-enter the National Gardens and turn immediately left and head for the corner of the intersection of Vasilissas Olgas Avenue and Vasilissas Amalias Avenue or just walk down the footpath to the next corner to find the statue.
Byron lived a short and colourful life of 36 years, the last two years spent fighting as a foreign revolutionary for the Greek forces striving for independence from the Ottoman Empire. He fell ill while campaigning for the Greeks and died from complications after blood-letting with possibly septic instruments. He became a great hero for the Greeks and his body was shipped home for burial…but not in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. He was rejected due to his ‘questionable morality.’
Years before he died, he weighed into the Elgin Marble’s debate in 1812 with a poem entitled, ‘The Curse of Minerva’. By the time the poem was published, Elgin had stripped the Parthenon and took most of the frieze sculptures back to England. In the poem, Byron has the Goddess Minerva savagely criticising the British for this crime, and while Byron acknowledges the crime, he defended his birth country’s reputation as per the verse on the right.
After communing with the romantic soul of Byron for a few minutes, it’s time to cross the road towards the Acropolis Museum and inspect the lonely beauty of Hadrian’s Arch.
6. Hadrian’s Arch
The Arch of Hadrian is a monumental gateway that spanned an ancient road from the centre of Athens built around 131 CE to honour the Roman Emperor Hadrian on a visit to Athens. A helpful sign near the arch states…
‘Two inscriptions are carved on the architrave, one on each side: the first, on the side towards the Acropolis reads “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus”; the second, on the other side, facing the new city, reads “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus.”’
Not much further up the hill is the large area containing the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
7. Olympieion (Temple of Olympian Zeus)
The ruin of the Temple of Olympian Zeus is unfortunately another one of those regular stories in Athens of major beautiful buildings that started with such high hopes, enjoyed a few hundred years of their ‘heyday’ before being destroyed by marauding barbarians with no sense of classical taste. The actual story is worse than that. The ruling tyrants of Athens back in the 6th century were going to build the biggest temple in the world to Zeus but it wasn’t actually finished for another 608 years after various attempts to complete the process had failed. Presumably it was many centuries a building site! The Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to finish it for the Athenians and did so by 131 CE. Rather than lasting a few centuries of basking in glory (which can be seen in the recreated image above), it only remained functional until the Heruli Barbarians came with their paying guests , the Goths, to smash up the great cities of the Empire and, more specifically, the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. Athens as part of the Roman Empire was no longer a wealthy city so the Temple was left in ruins and its building materials quarried for other projects. Even Sulla, the renegade Roman general and occasional dictator who fought with everyone, including Rome itself, collected two columns from here and shipped them back to Rome for use in Temples there in 86 CE.
Its still an impressive site to visit today with 16 of its giant columns still standing after nearly two millennia. The image on the left above is a recent image with the temple columns in the foreground and the Acropolis in the back ground. The photo on the right is from 1865, 13 years after one still standing column was blown off its foundations in a large storm. Its picturesque component drums still lay in the direction of its fall.
A Walk back through the Plaka
One of the great satisfactions gained from completing a walk like this through modern and ancient Athens is that you know you now deserve a place to sit and people watch in the Plaka and a great lunch to take your time over.
APPENDIX 1…Who were the Heruli?
The ‘Germanic’ barbarian tribe, the Heruli, comes up regularly when discussing the famous sites of Classical Athens. The Heruli sacked much of Athens sometime around 267-9 CE, an event which was in no way an isolated incident at the time. It was part of what historians call the ‘Crisis of the Third century’ when they discuss the gradual decline of the might of the Roman Empire. Whether due to climate change in Gaul or the destruction of their culture by the Romans, by the middle of third century, the tribes of northern Europe (Carpians, Goths, Vandals, Alamanni ) were on the move, looking for food, land and perhaps revenge. Called the ‘Gothic Invasians’, various tribal armies headed down to the Black Sea to begin their movement into the wealthy areas of Greece, Macedonia and the islands of the Mediterranean. They even managed to settle down for a while in Sicily.
The Heruli tribe were not ‘the biggest dog in the fight’ but apparently they supplied the fleet that carried the huge armies down along the Black Sea coast where they ravaged the coastal cities without too much local resistance. It seemed that this barbarian fleet broke into separate groups and chose different targets around the Aegean sea. The map below gives a good idea of the different directions the tribes took. The history of the period provides little solid information about this era but it seems that the Heruli kept Athens for themselves. After they left, Athens kept the rubble scattered around their city for the next 1800 years.
When the Roman Armies got their act together, they eventually defeated the Gothic invasion at Naissus in modern day Croatia.